MBB : Raising his game: Jackson ‘makes name’ by becoming premier big man in final season at SU

first_img Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on March 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm Commentscenter_img When his son was 11 years old, Rick Jackson Sr. took him to play Philadelphia basketball. It’s a different brand, a different style of play that hardens and toughens those who participate. Rick Jackson found that out soon enough.Rick Sr. watched as his son played against 16- and 17-year-olds in Philadelphia’s Chew Playground on 18th Street and Washington Avenue, near the family’s house.The younger Rick went up for a rebound. Soon, he met two elbows. One in the chest. One in the face. Knocked back, lip bleeding and flustered, the gangly preteen version of today’s Jackson sheepishly looked at his father.‘That’s the way you’re going to have to play,’ Rick Sr. told his son. ‘It’s hard. But you have to play that way.’The next play, Rick Jackson’s look turned to one of determination. He gave a shot right back at a player inside. Countless elbows, scratches and swings followed through the years. Jackson never looked at his father after another one of them. And he never looked back.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textAs No. 11 Syracuse prepares for the postseason — which starts Thursday at 2 p.m. in Madison Square Garden with the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament — Jackson is the reason this SU team goes in primed to build off two straight Sweet 16 performances.Once an afterthought among Top 10 recruiting classes and loaded teams, Jackson quickly rose to become the conference’s top inside player this season. His path there was unlikely. But through what his closest friends and family say is a penchant for hard work, determination and that toughness, Jackson got to where he stands today.‘He’s the best two-way player in the league when you look at defense and offense,’ SU head coach Jim Boeheim said last week. ‘He’s by far the most influential player.’The ‘moment’Jackson’s ‘moment’ came with a trip to the doctor’s office.His moment was nothing like Andy Rautins’, who grew up with a Syracuse pedigree imitating famous basketball players on a Toys ‘R’ Us hoop. Jackson wanted to play football.Nothing like Arinze Onuaku, who displayed super strength as a child when he lifted a nine-pound milk jug at 10 months. Jackson was long and lean.So for Jackson, the moment that would influence the rest of his basketball career happened in a cramped Philadelphia hospital patient’s room. A simple checkup turned complicated when his doctor said Jackson was growing too fast. He wanted to give him a shot to slow his growth.Worried, his mother, Joyce Thomas, considered the option.‘Listening to this doctor, I got scared,’ she said. ‘I was saying, ‘OK. It’s not good? Slow it down then.”But when Rick Sr. heard of the possibility, his son said he ‘freaked out.’ At the same time, Dad put things in perspective. Rick Sr. stood at 6 feet 5 inches. His father was 6 feet 7 inches. No need to rush to a decision that could affect the rest of his son’s life.‘Here I am,’ Rick Jackson said. ‘Six-nine. It all worked out. I’m just glad that didn’t happen.’Rick Sr. put a basketball in his son’s hands at the age of 7. Four years later, he started playing in playground leagues. That’s about the time he met Scoop Jardine, who would become his point guard to this day.Together, they strayed from the path that took many of their friends to life in the streets, jail or worse. Together, they stuck to basketball. Together, they made a promise soon after they met.‘He kept saying it,’ Thomas said of her son. ‘‘Me and Scoop, me and Scoop. We’re going to the same college. Me and Scoop, me and Scoop.”The SummitThe 6 a.m. wake-up call came every day during the summer between Jackson and Jardine’s freshman and sophomore seasons at Neumann-Goretti High School.Sometimes, Aaron Abbott slept on Deborah Jardine’s floor to make sure her grandson Scoop and Jackson got up. Sometimes, Abbott, a Neumann-Goretti assistant coach, left his own house early to gather two or three other players in addition to the two Neumann-Goretti budding stars.Either way, they crammed into his burgundy 2000 Ford Taurus every morning by 6:30 and drove to The Summit, a training center.‘You didn’t want to do it,’ Jackson said. ‘It was almost a job. I hated it. But it made me better.’That summer, Jackson became the beast that eventually got noticed by the likes of Connecticut, Wake Forest and, of course, Syracuse.The routine was always the same. Get to The Summit by 7 a.m. Train for three hours. Lift for two more before grabbing lunch. Then back after lunch to repeat.‘It would be maybe four or five guys in my little car,’ Abbott said. ‘Rick was the biggest, of course. But they’d always fall asleep.‘We spent a lot of time sleeping and eating in that car.’Abbott called him ‘Rookie.’ Still does. That freshman season as an assistant at Neumann-Goretti, Abbott made ‘Rookie’ carry around the seniors’ travel bags. At the end of practices, he dumped and scattered basketballs all throughout the gym and made ‘Rookie’ pick every single one up. He never complained.He built confidence then. He built confidence over the summer. And after those 10-hour work days, Jardine and Abbott said Jackson, who played sparingly in his freshman season at Neumann-Goretti, knew he was going to start.Soon after, as a sophomore, he won the job over a returning starter and senior.‘After our freshman year, he made up his mind that he was going to start,’ Jardine said. ‘I remember the hunger that he had that sophomore year. … I’m not going to lie. He really blew up, and he became a totally different player.’In his junior season, he and Jardine went head to head with Kevin Durant’s Montrose Christian team. Abbott remembers pulling Jackson aside midgame with a simple message.‘You’re playing like a punk,’ Abbott told him.The next play, Jackson — who is bigger and stronger than Durant — finally went up strong to the hoop in Durant’s face. Later, he put in a hook shot that put Neumann-Goretti up for good.‘He played like a monster,’ Abbott said. ‘He really took over the game. From that moment on, I knew he really wanted it.’‘The one guy you can’t take off the court’Mike Hopkins offers apologies to Syracuse guards Jardine and Brandon Triche and to forward Kris Joseph. That’s because to Hopkins, SU’s assistant coach, Jackson is the one player this Syracuse team can’t afford to lose.‘He’s the one guy you can’t take off the court. Ever,’ Hopkins said. ‘You have a lot of guys — if Scoop got hurt, or Brandon — they’re unbelievable players. … But he just means so much to what we do.’This season, Jackson has once again become the leading man at his program. In 31 games, Jackson averaged 13.1 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. He became a double-double machine.By the end of his freshman season at Syracuse, Jackson played single-digit minutes as the Orange limped to the NIT for the second consecutive season.‘By his sophomore year, he was ready to be rotting on that bench like a lot of players do,’ Thomas said. ‘He kept nagging Boeheim. He kept telling him, ‘Give me a chance. You keep yanking me out. You don’t even give me 15 minutes. Give me a chance to show you what I can do.”He finally got his chance his sophomore year against Memphis — albeit as a result of Eric Devendorf’s suspension. But for Hopkins, the game signified Jackson’s arrival.But Jackson had trouble staying in games. He played more than 30 minutes in just five of SU’s 31 regular-season games in his junior season. He struggled mightily in extended minutes in both Syracuse’s Big East tournament loss to Georgetown and its NCAA Tournament shocker to Butler, as SU played without its senior center Onuaku.Boeheim routinely pulls players aside in the locker room after games to point out individual successes or flaws. This one, though, Jackson didn’t quite expect. A few feet away from a sullen Onuaku, Boeheim sent his future star big man a message.‘We’re going to need you next year,’ Boeheim told him. ‘AO’s going to be gone. I need you to be the physical player that you can be — a guy that can go and rebound and bang for 40 minutes. I need you to be in shape to be able to play 40 minutes and just be an animal around the basket.’Within a couple of weeks, Jackson dumped cakes and cookies from his diet. He went back to the routine Abbott taught him. He shot hundreds of 15-foot jumpers, adding a new element to his game.It showed in perhaps the most important moment of the regular season at Connecticut, one of 13 games in which he’s played 38 minutes or more this season. The Orange was a loser of four straight.Minutes earlier, Jackson was embarrassed on a block by UConn’s Alex Oriakhi. With time winding down in the half, he took it right back to the teeth of the Husky defense. He pulled up for a hook shot, giving SU a 26-25 lead. It gave Syracuse its first lead in 133 minutes and 44 seconds of game time.‘The one thing about Ricky that’s huge is his consistency,’ Hopkins said. ‘He’s been consistent day in and day out. All. Year.’Making his nameWhen Thomas finished her daily 10-hour days as a SEPTA bus driver, she would come home and play basketball with young Rick. One on one, Mom usually won.‘You can’t beat your mom?’ Thomas teased her son. ‘You’re garbage!’For years, Jackson waited for revenge. Needless to say, Thomas can’t compete anymore. Last time they played, in a schoolyard across from their home, she laughed as Jackson dunked on her.‘That’s just the way he plays,’ Thomas said. ‘He’s going to want to play better no matter who he’s playing.’Last Saturday, Thomas and Rick Sr. watched that mentality in action from the stands as their son dominated on a Senior Day reserved solely for him. They stood by him as he received a plaque with a jersey that bore his number. They watched as he came out of a game for the final time at the Carrier Dome. They listened as the crowd chanted, ‘Thank you, Jackson!’For Jackson and Syracuse, his brand keeps the story going.‘I’m trying to make a name for myself,’ Jackson said. ‘A lot of guys come to college, and they’re just players. They don’t make a name for themselves. I don’t want that. I want to take over.’[email protected]last_img

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